Authors: Norma Hinkens
a hostile stare on me.
"He showed up at the gates a few minutes ago," Sven says.
"What are you doing here?" I say. "I gave you your freedom, you're on your own now. You don't belong here with us."
"I thought we were even," he says, in a menacing tone. "Seems we have unfinished business."
I glare at him. "What are you talking about?"
He shakes his arms free of his pack and tosses it on the ground. The military clones with Sven draw their weapons, but Rummy ignores them and unties the straps on his pack. He reaches inside for something, a dark scowl snaking across his face.
My mouth goes dry when he pulls out a broken arrow.
"This look familiar?" He runs the back of his nail along the wild turkey feathers.
"Why would it?" I say, my tone defiant.
He wipes his nose on his sleeve and studies me for a moment. "This here arrow killed my brother."
Shock ripples around the group but Rummy never takes his eyes off me--almost as if he knows I won't be surprised by the news.
"I could lie and tell you I'm sorry," I say. "But we weren't real close."
"Ain't that the truth." Rummy flicks the feathers on the arrow in an irritating fashion as he talks. "Thing is, see, I found Blade dead right after you passed by. Heck of a coincidence, ain't it?"
"The Sweepers got away from us. They must have killed him."
He laughs, but he doesn't sound amused. "Don't picture Sweepers hunting with wild turkey feather arrows." He bares his teeth before he continues. "This here was made by an Undergrounder and I reckon you know who."
I breathe slowly in and out. "Our business here is finished. You can leave of your own accord, or I can have you escorted out of the city."
Rummy's eyes narrow to slits. "You send me back out there and I'm a dead man." He takes a step toward me. "They're coming," he hisses. "They ain't far behind me."
My pulse creeps up a level. "Who?"
He gives a malevolent grin. "Well that's just it, ain't it? I didn't wait around to find out who put down the gloves. So we don't know if the Rogues or Schutz Clones are coming for us. And until we do, I ain't going nowhere."
I turn to Sven. "Lock Rummy up in the courthouse. We don't have time for this."
Sven signals to a couple of the military clones and I watch as they restrain Rummy and march him off. "Much obliged for the hospitality," he calls back to me, grinning wide.
"Do you think he knows more than he's telling us?" Trout asks.
An ominous feeling grips me. "He practically begged us to keep him here, which means he doesn't think the Rogues stand a chance."
"Either way, we can't wait until morning to bolster our defenses," Sven says. He calls a couple of his men over and directs them to round up the rest of the clones and begin fortifying the barricade.
I'm torn about leaving Big Ed, but we need to prepare for an imminent attack. The Rogues wouldn't be able to march all night after fighting the Schutz Clones. But if the Schutz Clones prevail, they could be here in a matter of hours.
"We need to find Blackbeard," I say. "We'll put him in charge of organizing the Undergrounders to man the barricade while the military clones work on fortifying weak spots."
Trout, Sven and I make our way across town to the courthouse. The guard on duty directs us back to Jerome's office. Blackbeard gets to his feet when he sees us, hastily scanning our faces.
"Jerome's fine," I say, answering the question in his eyes. "He thought the deviations would be safer in Terminus than trying to flee."
"Flee from who?" Blackbeard says.
"We left the Rogues and Schutz Clones to fight it out," I say. "It's anybody's guess who'll prevail. But whoever does will come for us."
Blackbeard grips the edge of the desk and bows his head. When he looks up, his expression is grim. "You think they'll come all the way to the city?"
I let out a heavy sigh. "They might already be on their way."
Blackbeard straightens up. "I'll station reinforcements around the barricade." He yells for the guard and barks out a series of orders. "And put two squadrons of Undergrounders on the gate," he calls after the guard as he hustles out the door.
"You need to get some rest," Blackbeard says, eying us up and down. "Go lay down in one of the offices for a few hours. I'll wake you if anything happens."
I throw him a grateful look. My brain's barely functioning at this point, and I'm confident no one can fortify the city better against attack than Blackbeard. He and his men built the original barricade and container gate, and he and Jerome have spent months training the Undergrounders to defend the city in case this day ever came.
I drag myself into the office next door and curl up in a heap on the floor with my head on my pack. Sven and Trout follow suit and pull their jackets over their faces. The sound of Trout's snoring quickly fills the space. I slip blissfully into a fog of sleep.
My next conscious thought is that the ground beneath me is harder than the forest floor's supposed to be.
"Derry!" Trout says, an urgent note in his voice.
I sit up and rub my eyes, slowly piecing together where I am. Sven stifles a yawn and gets to his feet.
Trout gestures to the doorway. I stare in disbelief at Viktor and Dimitri, strained expressions on their faces.
"Is it the Megamedes?" I ask, my heart racing.
"Iskra's missing," Dimitri says.
I frown. "Missing?"
Viktor wipes a hand across his jaw. "When we got to the Superconductor the scientist on duty told us she disappeared during her shift yesterday and never came back. Dimitri and I searched the entire city, but no one's seen her."
I rub the back of my neck trying to wake myself enough to grasp the significance of what he's saying. Naturally Viktor's worried about his daughter, but we're running out of time to locate the Megamedes. And Iskra is our only hope of making contact. Wherever she is, we have to find her.
"My sister is a conscientious scientist, she would never abandon her shift," Dimitri says. "Something must have happened to her."
"She has to be somewhere in the city," I say, pulling my hair into a rough ponytail. "We'll begin back at the Superconductor and track her last movements. Sven can pull the camera feed and review it. Most likely she fell asleep someplace. We're all exhausted."
Dimitri gives a resigned nod. Viktor looks like he's going to be sick.
"Stick your head into Jerome's office and tell Blackbeard we're going to the Superconductor," I say to Trout.
Trout slips out the door and I turn my attention back to Viktor. "Do you know what Iskra was doing when she disappeared?"
Viktor pinches his lips together. "I have a hunch she found the coordinates for the Megamedes. You think there might be a connection?"
"I'm not sure," I say, pushing down an uneasy thought. Did someone discover what she was doing and shut her down?
When Trout returns, we exit the courthouse and make our way across the rubble-strewn section of town to the Superconductor.
A distraught scientist greets us and ushers us inside. "I knew Iskra was worried about something yesterday," he begins without introduction.
"What do you mean?" I ask.
"I don't know exactly." He pulls distractedly at his collar. "She was jittery."
"About what?" Trout asks.
"I don't think it was
she was afraid of. It was
. I overheard her muttering to herself.
I don't trust him.
"Did she seem afraid of anyone in particular?" I ask.
The scientist shakes his head. "I don't think it was anyone who worked here. She kept throwing nervous glances at the door like she thought someone was going to walk in on her."
"Let's search the Superconductor one more time from top to bottom," I say. "Sven, can you pull up the cameras and see if there's anything unusual."
We work our way around the main command room, digging through piles of unused equipment in the storage areas, before fanning out to go through the smaller offices and research rooms. When we've combed every inch of the upper level we proceed down the metal, spiral stairway to the ground floor where the Superconductor is housed.
We repeat the same process, opening even the smallest storage compartments on the off chance that they might reveal some clue that will lead us to Iskra.
"Any luck with the cameras?" I call upstairs to Sven, still hunched over the CommCenter. He walks over to the stairway and runs his fingers through his hair. "I've reviewed all the footage. Nothing out of the ordinary. She left her desk a few minutes before she disappeared. According to the log, she went downstairs to do a routine check of the Superconductor gauges. That was the last sighting. No footage of her leaving the building."
I frown up at him. "But there's no way out down–" My voice trails off.
A look of comprehension flickers in Sven's face. He grips the handrails and bounds down the stairs two at a time. "There are no cameras on the tunnel entrance," he says. "She could have exited the Superconductor that way."
"But how would she have known about the tunnel?" I ask. "And why would she sneak out?"
Sven shrugs. "Beats me." He kneels down on the floor and searches around for the loose board to activate the trapdoor.
"Did you find something?" Viktor asks, frowning.
"There's a tunnel leading from here to the courthouse," I explain. "I'm not sure how Iskra would have found out about it, but it's possible she used it to escape undetected if she was trying to hide from someone."
Dimitri drops to his knees and begins feeling around with his fingers.
Sven locates the loose board and yanks on it. The trapdoor eases open and we stare down into the pitch-black space.
"I'll check it out," Dimitri says, climbing down into the tunnel before anyone has a chance to stop him. His boots clatter an eerie echo on the metal rungs as he makes a rapid descent.
I turn to Sven. "Wait here, I'll take a quick look and see if anyone's gone that way recently." I switch on my flashlight and clamber down the ladder after Dimitri, the tunnel walls closing in around me. I hunch over and assume an all too familiar shuffle along the dirt-packed floor until I bump up against Dimitri, stock-still on his knees in the middle of the tunnel.
"What are you doing?" I say, leaning over his shoulder. I let out a gasp when the thin amber beam of my flashlight illuminates the gaping eyes of his dead sister.
!" Dimitri chokes the word out, his body shuddering from the impact of his loss.
I lay a hand on his shoulder and squeeze it gently. There are no words to comfort him. He falls on top of his sister, sobbing unashamedly, giant waves of grief that echo eerily through the crypt-like space.
I peer down the dark tunnel, a foreboding feeling growing inside me. Death follows us no matter which direction we flee. Even our secret tunnel isn't safe anymore. There's a murderer at large in the city.
contort in a landslide of pain when Dimitri emerges from the tunnel carrying Iskra. His eyes reflect an even more shocking exposé of the grief he's wrestling with. He staggers over to Dimitri and gathers his daughter in his arms. "Lapushka," he whispers, then presses his lips to her forehead.
My eyes burn with tears at the softness in his voice. I avert my gaze and wipe the back of my hand across my lashes.
Sven comes up alongside me and motions me aside.
"What is it?" I ask.
He wets his lips. "Only a handful of people know about this tunnel."
My pulse picks up pace, my mind running through names. "You, me and Trout." I rub my brow. "Jerome's in the Craniopolis." I suck in a breath. "You don't think Blackbeard or his men–"
"No!" he whispers. "I told someone else about it."
My eyes widen. "Who?"
"I showed it to Rocco before we left for the Craniopolis--in case there was a crisis."
My jaw drops. "You don't think Rocco killed her, do you?"
Sven shakes his head. "I don't know."
"But you trust him," I say.
"I ... did."
I frown, remembering what the scientist upstairs overheard. An icy tingle goes down my spine. "Sven," I whisper. "She said she didn't trust
Do you think she was talking about Rocco?"
A flicker of anger crosses Sven's face. "If Rocco did this–"
I grab his arm, too late to stop him blurting it out.
Dimitri looks up, shock and disbelief ricocheting across his face. "You think ... Rocco did this?"
"We don't know who it was," I say. "It could have been one of Blackbeard's men. But Rocco knew about the tunnel too so we can't rule him out."
Dimitri balls his hands into fists. "If that clone murdered Iskra, I'll make sure he never has the privilege of reaching his expiration date."
I shiver at the words, and not just because of Dimitri's threat. I keep trying to forget that Sven's life is petering out in front of me and that I'm helpless to prevent it from happening.
"Tell the scientist upstairs we found Iskra," I say to Sven.
He nods and disappears up the spiral staircase in a couple of strides. I turn to Viktor who's sitting in a nearby chair cradling his daughter's body in his lap.
I clear my throat. "We need to ... make arrangements ... for Iskra."
He stares at me like a frightened child clutching a doll about to be taken away from him. Dimitri leans over his father and says something to him in their native tongue, then lifts his sister into his arms and heads for the winding metal staircase. Viktor glances around, tracking us blankly, before getting to his feet and following his son up the stairs.
We take Iskra's body outside and Sven digs a grave in a matter of minutes inside the perimeter fence around the Superconductor. I don't want to risk taking her remains to the graveyard. Someone might see us burying her. If word gets out that there's a murderer on the loose, it will send the city into a panic, and right now we need to stay focused on the battle ahead. At Viktor's request, Trout erects a small cross to mark the spot. Dimitri says a few words over the grave, before putting an arm around his father and walking him back inside.
I don't know for sure what Iskra was working on when she disappeared, or who she was afraid of, but Sven will get to the bottom of it. Iskra may have been the brains behind the computer system on board the Megamedes, but Sven was engineered to hack into anything.
Trout and I retreat outside to the upper-level balcony to give Viktor and Dimitri some space while Sven gets to work on Iskra's computer. When he rejoins us a short while later I raise a quizzical brow at him.
"She made contact with the Megamedes," he says, a grave look on his face.
"That's great!" I say.
"No," Sven says. "It's not."
Trout narrows his eyes at him. "What are you getting at?"
Sven hesitates. "She betrayed us. From what I can tell from the transmissions, she told them everything. The Sweepers are probably already on their way."
"Iskra sold us out?" Trout throws me a horrified look.
"I don't understand," I say. "Why would she do that to her own father and brother?"
Sven shakes his head. "She may not have implicated them."
"Do you think someone discovered what she did?" Trout says.
"I don't know," Sven says. "But it's time we tracked down Rocco. If it wasn't him, we have to assume one of Blackbeard's men was behind it." He throws a quick glance over his shoulder. "I deleted the transmissions. I ... didn't want her father to know what she did."
"Good call," I say, eying Viktor hunched over, sobbing into his hands. It's so like Sven to be moved by someone else's pain. From what I've seen so far, I'd say clones' hearts are just as tender as humans.
Jerome's office is empty by the time we get back to the courthouse. Presumably, Blackbeard is out checking on the fortifications around the barricade.
Sven walks out into the corridor and calls to a guard to fetch Rocco. "We'll get to the bottom of this one way or another," he says, sinking into a chair when he comes back.
My eyes skirt over Sven's bulging physique. Rocco is a large clone, but I've no doubt who'll come out on top if he forces Sven into a showdown.
"The guard says all's quiet on the perimeter," Sven remarks.
Trout grunts. "It could change in a heartbeat. The barricade's too long for us to defend properly. If we're attacked on multiple fronts, we won't be able to hold them off indefinitely."
"There are more of us," I remind him.
Trout throws me a disgruntled look. "Yeah, but all the best shots are off on their merry homesteading way."
My heart skips a beat when I remember Owen out there forging a path to the Deadwood Basin. I only hope they don't run into whoever prevailed at the Craniopolis.
I glance up as Rocco and several other military clones troop through the door. I study Rocco's face for any indication of guilt, but it's expressionless as usual.
He looks around the room. "We've shored up a large section of the barricade already. Something else you want us to jump on?"
"Sit down, Rocco." Sven pulls out a chair for him. "Derry and I want to ask you some questions."
Rocco raises his brows.
Sven gestures for me to begin.
"We found Iskra's body at the Superconductor an hour or so ago." I tilt my head to one side, inviting Rocco to respond.
He turns to Sven, frowning.
"She was murdered," Sven says. "During her shift yesterday."
Rocco leans back in his chair. "You want me to find out who's responsible?"
"We want to know if
responsible," I say.
Rocco throws Sven a defensive look. "What is she talking about?"
"We found her in the tunnel beneath the Superconductor," Sven says, quietly. "You're one of the few people who knew about it."
"What about Blackbeard and his men?"
"Never mind them," Sven says. "I'm talking to you."
A dangerous glint appears in Rocco's eyes. "Are you accusing me?"
Sven half rises out of his chair. "I'm
"I'm your kind, remember?" Rocco says. "Maybe you should be asking Blackbeard."
Sven grabs him by the collar. "Just tell me the truth. Did you kill her?"
"She lied to me!" Rocco yells at him, spittle bouncing on his lower lip.
My jaw drops. The room goes silent. I glance across at Sven. He rubs a hand gingerly across his jaw, as though he took a blow to the chin.
"I thought I meant something to her," Rocco says, "but she was just like every other Sweeper!"
Sven frowns. "You two ... were together?"
Rocco hangs his head. "I thought so until I overheard her transmitting to the Megamedes. She gave them counts of everyone in the city. She'd selected me for a program."
"What are you talking about?" Sven asks.
"Ossification trials," Rocco says. "They need guinea pigs, military clones who can withstand DNA resplicing."
My pulse thuds wildly. A look of horror passes over Trout's face.
Rocco narrows his eyes. "I was an experiment to her. We all were."
Sven lays a hand on Rocco's shoulder. "I believe you, but why did you have to kill her? We could have arrested her. I swore to Dimitri and Viktor I'd find who was responsible for her death. I can't protect you. You're going to have to leave the city."
"I didn't want to do it, but she was dangerous." Rocco struggles to take a breath. He seems genuinely overcome with grief as if it's only just registering what he's done. Which is all well and fine, but it doesn't change the fact that he's about to become an outcast in a world which has little sympathy for those without a faction, and there's nothing we can do to help him.
Sven gestures to the military clones standing behind him. "Take him outside the city limits. Give him his weapon and a supply of food and water."
Rocco gets to his feet, his face crevassed with grief. Trout bows his head. Sven folds his arms across his chest, his lips pressed together.
This can't be easy for Sven, but Rocco can't stay here after what he did. If word gets out that one of the clones killed a scientist, we'd have a riot on our hands. Viktor and Dimitri will demand his execution.
We follow the military clones and Rocco in what feels like a funeral march of sorts as far as the container gates. Sven and Rocco exchange one last embrace before Sven signals up to the guards to unlatch the gates. I wait for the familiar creaking to begin as the gates swing open, but instead a shout of alarm cuts through the air.